OGN Champions Spring 2015: Dark Horses
The 2015 season will redefine everything we know about Korean League of Legends, from the casters and spectators to the players and contracts. Up until now, the OnGameNet Champions League tournament has featured 16 teams, with many paired up as "sister teams" from the same organization (i.e. Samsung Blue + White, KT Arrows + Bullets). This past offseason, KeSPA (Korean eSports Association) collaborated with Riot Games to vary the format of future OGN Champions tournament play, narrowing the competition from 16 teams down to 10, and limiting each organization to the ownership of a single team. Thus, sister teams have condensed their rosters to incorporate the best of both lineups, leaving some players out of a job and others thrust into the spotlight. Many of the so-called "Korean rejects" opted out of playing League of Legends in their home country in search of better treatment, more money, and a new experience: some signed with LPL and LSPL organizations in China, a few moved to Europe, and still others latched onto North American teams. Although close to home, the players that remain in Korea have increased pressure to perform at the highest level due to their competition branching out all over the world, thus decreasing the likelyhood that Korea dominates the international scene as in recent years. Yes, the Korean infrastructure in gaming organizations, tournament play, and training regimens is vastly superior to that of Western regions, or even China, for that matter, but this still does not deny the simple fact that some of the best players in the Korean region have moved onto bigger and better opportunities, which opens the door for a few newer faces that might not have had the attention beforehand.
1. MaRin (TOP - SK Telecom T1)
Widely regarded as the best Rumble player in Korea, after the departure of former Samsung Blue top laner Acorn to LGD Gaming in China, MaRin joined the SK Telecom organization in October of 2013, though on the less-hyped, not-as-successful SKT T1 S squad. Obviously, right at the peak of the Season 3 World Championships, he didn't turn many heads due to the unstoppable run of mighty SKT T1 K, a roster that featured Faker, the unkillable demon king, Impact and his namesake's worth of Jax play, Bengi, the blind monk, and a bot lane with cute synergizing nicknames that are based on a children's story.
MaRin's first taste of competitive action came in the Spring season of OGN Champions 2014, where he played almost exclusively Renekton, Shyvana, and Ryze, none of which came off as impressive. SKT T1 K's Impact, however, shined on the bruiser/tank picks due to his naturally safer, more rewarding laning and deep experience with the split-push monster, Jax. MaRin left little to no lasting impression on spectators other than being another player who could soak damage with the mighty crocodile. This theme continued into OGN LTE-A Masters 2014, where his average, possibly mediocre, Renekton play pushed for the entire SKT T1 K roster to play Game 3 of the Grand Final, leaving SKT T1 S to yet again sit in the shadows.
SKT T1 K struggled mightily through the majority of the OGN Champions Summer tournament, with flashes of former greatness, but overall deteriorating heavily. Many point to the on-and-off departure of team captain and support player PoohManDu as the key to the downfall of the Season 3 World Champions. Impact saw a giant drop-off in his game scores and performances, which could be due to a difficult time adapting to the Teleport meta and no longer having the ability to beat down his lane opponents. Faker began trading kills with his lane opponent, eventually being solo killed by a few with no return. Piglet went into a slump with the shifting meta, AD carry changes, and the added pressure to perform on an already-struggling roster. Combine all of the members' individual downfalls, and SKT T1 K fails to quality for the Season 4 World Championship.
Meanwhile, in Korean solo queue, while the rest of the high-elo community is preparing for the World Championships, a select few are playing to their heart's content, slowly climbing their way up the ladder into territory marked by legends such as Faker, KaKAO, Lil4c, and Flame.
MaRin reached Rank 1 shortly after the Season 4 World Championships, playing EXCLUSIVELY Rumble, Lissandra, and Gnar, and began to make a name for himself by consistently growing incredible leads on his lane opponent and then teleporting around the map, making plays nonstop.
This season, SKT T1 K and SKT T1 S have consolidated into a singular SKT T1 roster, giving MaRin a fresh start. With the recent announcement of Impact's departure from the SK Telecom organization, and with strong showings in the 2015 OGN Preseason thus far from our Rumble god, MaRin is poised for a breakout year in the Korean scene. With SKT T1 S, a team with a notoriously passive laning style, he was not given much opportunity for playmaking and individual highlight reels, but with the recent shift in meta to incorporate AP-utility and more carry-oriented top lane champions, MaRin should feel right at home. Although we may not see many 1v1 beatdowns of an enemy champion such as with Impact or ZionSpartan in Season 3, MaRin should be able to rack up large CS leads and create immense amounts of pressure as if he really is killing his lane opponent repeatedly. Be prepared for a multitude of Rumble bans against SKT this coming season (barring a groundbreaking patch) as well as high contention of the Lissandra pick. We have seen Faker play a very crafty Lissandra in the mid lane as well, which opens her up as a flex pick for SKT. However, if Lissandra, Rumble, and Gnar (god forbid) are all unavailable, MaRin could run into a bit of trouble. Scrim results have not been released, but signs point to Renekton or Ryze as fallbacks should his main champions be taken away, neither of which are incredibly strong in this meta.
In a recent interview, MaRin revealed that "[their] coach and manager doesn't place a lot of importance on the preseason...helps [them] stay relaxed and enjoy the matches more," so we can only hope for the same kind of breathtaking performances come OGN Champions Spring 2015.
2. BlisS (MID - Samsung)
If you don't recognize this name right away, you are not alone. With over 900 games on only Fizz through Season 4, and fewer than 90 on his next most played (which isn't even a mid lane champion), BlisS (formerly known as "Bell Park" on NA and KR servers) wouldn't be anybody's first choice to fill PawN's shoes as a World Champion mid laner. Naturally, Fizz is not the optimal pick for every single game, so BlisS had better come up with a backup plan, fast, if he wants to show up on this ragtag team of solo queue prodigies and make something of himself this season. Luckily for us, and for himself, BlisS was able to pull off both Morgana and Lissandra in the mid lane this preseason, to decent effectiveness. He was able to solo-kill KT Edge on Ahri, surprising both the English and Korean casters, as well as many spectators. When BlisS was finally given his patented Fizz, vs SKT T1, he killed Faker on LeBlanc solo for first blood only five minutes into the game, drawing oohs and aahs from the live audience.
As part of the new Azubu contracts between the popular streaming site and a few of the Korean eSports organizations, the entire Samsung roster has been streaming frequently in their off time from scrims, mainly to give the community some insight to the Eastern scene and its personality, rather than provide helpful commentary such as professional streamers on rival site Twitch.tv. However, this consistent invitation from players like BlisS allows the Western world to learn and experience League of Legends from an entirely new perspective, thus diversifying the community in its entirety.
BlisS has a lot to prove this season to show that he is worthy of being plucked from the solo queue ladder and thrust into the spotlight of professional League of Legends at the highest level, and we can follow some of his progress at azubu.tv/BlisS. Lately, BlisS seems to be favoring Lissandra, with some LeBlanc and Kassadin mixed in. This patch has seen most people rush the Morellonomicon for more AP, more efficient mana regeneration, and an earlier power spike (cheaper recipe), and BlisS is taking that early advantage to another level, purchasing a Mejai's Soulstealer in a large minority of his recent solo queue games in order to further snowball the game. He has been known to have a very aggressive laning style on Fizz, often flashing for kills at level 2 and level 3, which works incredibly well in solo queue, where jungler-mid synergy isn't as developed, but in organized team play, BlisS will face the challenge of enemies investing heavily in the mid lane, and it will be interesting to see how he can adapt to the more disciplined, punishing jungle style of the big leagues.
Look for Fizz bans all over the place, and the possible use of Lissandra as a flex pick between BlisS and CuVee (top lane for Samsung). However limited BlisS's champion pool may seem, he is still a relative unknown. Expectations should remain low until we get later in the season, where his strengths and weaknesses will be more carefully evaluated, and he has a few games of experience under his belt.
3. Winged (JUNGLE - Jin Air)
Does this name seem semi-familiar? Maybe you saw it on Reddit? Well it definitely should ring a bell if you've followed the competitive scene since 2013. Winged began his eSports career in the Najin e-mFire organization, as the substitute jungler for Najin Black Sword for the 2013 season. He didn't see much action the entire year, but was thrust into battle for the NLB Winter Final against CJ Entus Blaze, unfortunately falling 1-3 to them but receiving 60 circuit points for finishing 2nd overall in the tournament.
Soon after the conclusion of the event, Winged decided to part ways with the Najin organization and take his talents elsewhere. He moved, along with fellow countryman SuNo (formerly of the infamous Quantic Gaming squad that attempted, and failed, to qualify for the NALCS) to Brazil on a lucrative contract offer from the Keyd Stars, an eSports organization known for its success in Starcraft II. There he led his team to victory in many tournaments against Season 4 World Championship Qualifier KABUM! eSports, as well as paiN Gaming and CNB eSports. While struggling to learn a new language, Winged contributed to the community by creating a number of in-depth jungle guides for champions such as Elise, Kha'Zix, Pantheon, and now Rek'Sai. Jin Air has not announced who its starting jungler will be for the upcoming season (Chaser has been inconsistent at best), but Winged's return to Korea shows tremendous uncertainty, although promising.
Winged has been playing solely Lee Sin and Jarvan IV in solo queue recently (of the released champions), but his most interesting quality is his familiarity and comfort with the newest champion, Rek'Sai, in the jungle. When the champion is allowed on the tournament realm in Korea, expect any game involving Jin Air to include either a ban or early-rotation pick of Rek'Sai. Experimenting with a number of different builds, Winged is finding tremendous success with this new champion, success that should translate to a higher level with the right amount of preparation within the team. Newer champions are generally not set in stone in terms of their numbers, so don't hold your breath and over-hype Winged, because although this pocket pick might turn Jin Air's misfortune around, Winged has been out of Korea for nearly a year: he still has some adjusting to do in terms of team play and communication, both of which are severe changes for anybody adapting to a different region.
Jin Air's preseason did not look pretty, racking up only a single win toward the latter half, but the organization is known for having a rather deep support staff. Look for Winged to make an impact in his strong, developing solo lanes (Trace[top] and GBM[mid]) on standard junglers until his Rek'Sai is released for competitive play. Winged's return to Korea will definitely have little to no fanfare, but keep an eye out for mechanical outplays and a wide distribution of pressure in multiple lanes, things the Brazilian scene has developed quite nicely.
Aaron "gallex" Asher
Photos: Riot Games, LoLNews Brazil, Azubu.tv, op.gg, inven.co.kr
MaRin interview: inven.co.kr